New Base For Holiday Statue Restores The Past

Panels Honor Jazz Singer As Well As Blacks' Reality

July 17, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

When Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid created the city's first memorial to the stunningly gifted jazz singer Billie Holiday in 1985, something was missing. Gone were the panels containing references to the Jim Crow era and the lynching that Holiday so chillingly recounted in the ballad "Strange Fruit."

Now Reid has a chance to remedy what he calls censorship by city officials, by adding the bronze panels for today's rededication of the statue on the 50th anniversary of her death.

The striking, 8-foot-6-inch-high, 1,200-pound likeness of the Baltimore-born Holiday, wearing a strapless gown, with her trademark gardenias in her hair and her mouth open in song, will now rest on a 20,000-pound base of solid granite, as Reid had intended all along.

"Because of a rush to judgment on the city's part," said Reid, who skipped the 1985 dedication ceremony, "they put the statue on a two-tier cement pedestal, not a six-foot-high granite pedestal, as per my design, that would have housed these panels. Both are very significant to me and to Billie Holiday. She gave such a rich credibility to the experiences of black people and the black artist."

One panel depicts a black man who has been lynched. Another design element, showing a crow eating a gardenia, "represents the Jim Crow racism that ate the spirit of black people, including Billie Holiday," Reid said. "This is a reality that people of color had to face, and it hasn't ended. I'm trying to address this as an artist. It is my responsibility as an artist."

News accounts refer to considerable delay in getting any kind of Holiday memorial to fruition. Eventually the statue was planned for a plaza at the corner of Pennsylvania and W. Lafayette avenues, near the site of the Royal Theatre, where Holiday often performed. She died at the age of 44.

The dedication of the $113,000 statue, presided over by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and attended by more than 200 people, took place 14 years after the first proposal for a monument and eight years after Reid was hired for the project. Along the way, there was a dispute between the city and the artist over his fee and the cost for final bronzing of the statue.

The sculptor blames the city for blocking the inclusion of the panels, with their provocative elements. "There was clear evidence of censorship," he says. A newspaper report on the dedication noted that the panels were missing, but did not explain why.

City officials were quoted in April 1985 crediting Marion Pines, chief of the Neighborhood Progress Administration, with enabling the ceremony to proceed. "There were all kinds of problems," she said at the time. "I don't really recall them all. But I just said, 'Let's get it done.' "

In an e-mail interview this week, Pines, now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies, said she does not have "very vivid memories of the dedication. I do remember that Billie looked beautiful with the signature flower in her hair. I do not recall any boycott [by Reid], nor any censorship. Those are pretty harsh terms."

Pines added that the issues raised by the sculptor "are possibilities, but ... it has been 24 years and I just cannot confirm anything with certainty."

Last year, with the help of City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, $76,000 was found to restore the monument, allowing for inclusion of the missing panels.

There is also room on the new pedestal for a dedication to the late Lena Boone, director of the Upton Planning Committee, who had been at the forefront of the movement to erect a Holiday memorial.

In a 1989 Baltimore Sun interview, Boone spoke of Reid's selection as sculptor: "His detail in terms of facial features impressed us. His statue looks very much alive to me. It looks like [Holiday is] going to walk down off of it. I think she looks like she's singing 'My Man.' "

Although Reid never anticipated such a long wait for the realization of his original concept, he sees significance in the way events have converged in 2009, starting with the 50th anniversary of Holiday's death.

"This is the centennial of the founding of the NAACP, which, in its charter, was dedicated to bringing an end to lynching," Reid said. "And this year we have had the historic election of Barack H. Obama as president, a powerful statement in itself in terms of the historical evolution process. When you see the unveiling of the memorial, you will see I bring a number of these things into context."

Two sides of the statue's new base contain panels inspired by songs deeply and emotionally associated with Holiday. The "Strange Fruit" panel graphically depicts a black adult male who has been hanged. Reid's representation of bittersweet "God Bless the Child" includes the image of a black male child at birth, the umbilical cord still attached, a visual link to the rope used in the hanging.

Still, the rededication has fundamentally the same goal as the 1985 ceremony.

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